The Twentieth Century Society

Performance: Kensal Voices

SPID Theatre Company, Kensal House Estate

Reviewed by Christopher Heighes

The Grade II* Kensal House Estate does not at first appear to be the ‘place of humanity and social coherence’ that its Modernist architect Edwin Maxwell Fry had in mind when he designed it in 1936–38. Today, the forlorn exterior, with its peeling white paint, cluttered balconies, satellite dishes and security gates, does not declare to passers-by that this is a bold vision of social housing worthy of preservation. Instead, it raises uneasy questions: can (and should) such buildings be preserved? Is its architectural originality and listed status relevant and useful to its present occupants?

Fortunately, the residents of Kensal House are well aware of these issues. In 2005 they invited SPID (Specially Produced, Innovatively Directed) Theatre Company to take up a residency in their neglected community rooms. Over the next eight years, the energetic company renovated the space and established a vibrant youth theatre and Community Hub. In 2013, the group began a highly successful youth heritage project, Kensal Voices, to explore and reactivate the forgotten stories and innovative principles behind the building’s design and use. Working with the V&A, C20 and North Kensington and Kensington Libraries, the year-long project ended in February 2014 with a stimulating site-specific performance, Stories in Residence: Tales of the Sunshine Flats.

Like much site-specific work, the piece began awkwardly with the audience gathered on a cramped and very noisy stretch of pavement. But, listening through headsets to Maxwell Fry evocatively describing his approach to the building (‘Boxes are unnatural places for human beings to live…’), it began to transform into a rich and intriguing experience.

Two young historians led the crowd in under Fry’s elegant circular entrance porch, with its high lantern pole originally designed to guide weary shoppers home. They expertly described the history and spatial dynamics of the building, and particularly how the north-south axis of the blocks provided maximum sunlight to the flats. Gazing down into the purpose-built work-rooms and garden space, while listening to poignant interviews with residents who had grown up there, we got a very immediate sense of the sheltered ‘urban village’ that Fry and his partners wanted to establish on the estate.

An impressive re-enactment of a 1937 Coronation Tea formed the core of the promenade-style performance. The company of young performers confidently drew the audience into the space by serving tea, wittily stewarding a cake competition and leading all in a crazy group dance finale which effectively showed how the community rooms functioned as the social heart of the building. Also introduced was Elizabeth Denby, the radical social housing reformer who worked with Fry and encouraged him to adopt a more progressive, socially responsible style at Kensal House that would result in ‘homes’ rather than just houses.

The audience then split into smaller groups to step through well-improvised scenes that included a pre-war shoe repair workshop, a women’s sewing club, a peek into a 1960s flat (with George Best moody on a magazine cover). The performance ended with an energetic football match boldly addressing the cultural diversity and tensions emerging on the estate in the 1970s.

Project leaders Mariana Sastre and Nnenna Samson and their team of young performers, technicians and designers managed the interior and exterior moments well, creating a vivid multi-layered experience. Some scenes were a little rushed, and occasionally the audience could have been left longer to absorb the atmosphere of the building. But overall the event very successfully re-established the principles of co-operation, generosity and social ownership that informed the estate’s original construction. If ever the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea get round to refurbishing it, its energetic and well-informed residents must play a part.